Aretha doc – fi­nally – set to de­but

‘Amaz­ing Grace’ cap­tures her 1972 church ses­sions

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - LIFE - Brian McCol­lum

Like a tan­ta­liz­ing trea­sure locked in a box, an Aretha Franklin mas­ter­piece has sat just out of reach for more than four decades.

Now the world will fi­nally get a look at “Amaz­ing Grace,” the much-wanted, long-thwarted movie cap­tur­ing the 1972 church ses­sions that hatched Franklin’s best-sell­ing gospel al­bum of the same name. Af­ter years of tech­ni­cal snags and le­gal tan­gles, the singer’s es­tate has cleared the way for the film’s re­lease – just in time for Os­car con­sid­er­a­tion.

“Amaz­ing Grace” will pre­miere Nov. 12 at the DOC NYC film fes­ti­val in Man­hat­tan, ahead of runs in Los An­ge­les (Nov. 20-27, Laemmle’s Mon­ica Film Cen­ter) and New York (Dec. 7-14, Film Fo­rum). Pro­duc­ers ex­pect to lock down a dis­tri­bu­tion deal for a wide the­atri­cal re­lease in 2019, and say a spe­cial Detroit event is in the works.

“It’s an ex­cel­lent film. I see it as very pure,” said Sab­rina Owens, a niece of Franklin and ex­ecu­tor of the es­tate. “Aretha is around 30 years old. Her voice is crys­tal-clear. It’s just very in­spi­ra­tional, very mov­ing. We think any­one who sees it will get joy out of it.”

Owens and fam­ily mem­bers were given a pri­vate show­ing in Septem­ber at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory, a month af­ter Franklin’s death. Their host was pro­ducer Alan El­liott, the L.A. com­poser and mu­sic pro­fes­sor who has been bat­tling to re­lease “Amaz­ing Grace” since ob­tain­ing footage rights a decade ago.

In the movie, Franklin is “young and very shy, noth­ing like the con­fi­dent, self-as­sured per­son we saw later,” Owens said. “She says maybe said five words the en­tire film. It’s just her stand­ing there sing­ing, with a voice so beau­ti­ful and charis­matic.”

“‘Amaz­ing Grace’ has been a lost trea­sure of doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing for over four decades,” DOC NYC artis­tic di­rec­tor Thom Pow­ers said in a state­ment. “I can’t think of a big­ger honor for a fes­ti­val than to pre­miere this film.”

As it sat out of sight through the decades, the filmed 1972 per­for­mance took on myth­i­cal stature. The Roots’ Quest­love is among those who ro­man­ti­cized “Amaz­ing Grace” as a lost cul­tural ar­ti­fact need­ing to be re­vealed:

“NOTH­ING has tor­tured my soul more than know­ing one of the GREAT­EST recorded mo­ments in gospel his­tory was just gonna sit on the shelf and col­lect dust. Many peo­ple have told me ru­mors about it since be­fore I had a (record) deal,” he wrote on In­sta­gram in 2015. “The 5 mins I saw of the clip back in 2011 had me JAW DROPPED.”

In 1972, Franklin was firmly es­tab­lished as the Queen of Soul, a main­stream star of R&B and pop. What’s notable about “Amaz­ing Grace” is it show­cases the Detroit singer in her most nat­u­ral ele­ment: a church.

Footage was cap­tured in Jan­uary 1972 at New Tem­ple Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist in Los An­ge­les, where Franklin was joined by the Rev. James Cleve­land and his choir for two days of elec­tri­fy­ing gospel ses­sions. At­lantic Records’ par­ent com­pany, Warner Bros., wanted a doc­u­men­tary to chron­i­cle the al­bum’s record­ing and tapped di­rec­tor Syd­ney Pol­lack to over­see the shoot.

The en­su­ing dou­ble al­bum was a block­buster, win­ning a Grammy and be­com­ing the big­gest com­mer­cial suc­cess of Franklin’s ca­reer. It still reigns as the best-sell­ing al­bum in gospel his­tory.

But in the ana­log days of the early ’70s, the 20 hours of un­syn­chro­nized footage and mu­sic tape proved daunt­ing to as­sem­ble. Clap­boards hadn’t been used dur­ing the shoot to mark scenes. Worse, the au­dio tape ma­chine had lagged be­hind the cam­eras in the first place. Even af­ter hir­ing the choir’s band con­duc­tor to read lips, Warner Bros. gave up and shelved the movie project.

El­liott ac­quired the footage in 2008 at the urg­ing of Jerry Wexler, the pro­ducer who shep­herded Franklin’s early At­lantic Records ca­reer and was de­ter­mined to get “Amaz­ing Grace” fin­ished.

“It was just a big box of film, and a big box of au­dio,” El­liott said.

Aided by dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, El­liott en­listed spe­cial­ists to sync it all up, and from there the reams of footage were edited into a co­he­sive fi­nal piece.

But for rea­sons that re­main murky – in­clud­ing to El­liott and fam­ily mem­bers – Franklin re­sisted the movie’s re­lease.

“It isn’t that I’m not happy about the film, be­cause I love the film it­self,” she told the Detroit Free Press in 2015. “It’s just that – well, legally I re­ally should just not talk about it, be­cause there are prob­lems.”

In 2011, Franklin had pre-emp­tively sued El­liott, con­tend­ing he wasn’t au­tho­rized to use her name and image. They set­tled out of court.

Four years later, El­liott turned up a decades-old con­tract be­tween Franklin and Warner Bros. that pre­sum­ably au­tho­rized the film re­lease of “Amaz­ing Grace.” Show­ings were sched­uled for the pres­ti­gious Tel­luride and Toronto film fes­ti­vals in 2015, with plans for in­ter­na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion. Franklin again turned to the courts, se­cur­ing an in­junc­tion from a Colorado fed­eral judge to stop the movie just hours be­fore its sched­uled Tel­luride pre­miere.

And so “Amaz­ing Grace” sat in limbo for the next three years, amid con­tin­u­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween El­liott’s team and Franklin’s at­tor­neys. The singer re­jected sev­eral of­fers. “We’ve got­ten past all that, and both sides are very ex­cited about get­ting the movie be­fore a pub­lic au­di­ence,” Owens said.

With the 91st Academy Awards loom­ing in Fe­bru­ary, the up­com­ing screen­ings will al­low “Amaz­ing Grace” to clear a key dead­line by the skin of its teeth: Films must show for a week in both New York and L.A. to be el­i­gi­ble for the Os­cars. A mar­ket­ing cam­paign will be launched tout­ing the movie for best doc­u­men­tary and best pic­ture.

“I’m just so ex­cited to share the movie with the world,” El­liott said.

The sound mix was fin­ished last week in L.A. with an as­sist from Jimmy Dou­glass, who mixed the orig­i­nal “Amaz­ing Grace” record. For long­time fans, watch­ing the 1972 per­for­mance un­fold on the big screen will trans­form it “from a two-di­men­sional to three-di­men­sional ex­pe­ri­ence,” El­liott said.

And he’s con­fi­dent “Amaz­ing Grace” will res­onate well be­yond the gospel com­mu­nity.

“This is a tran­scen­dent ex­pe­ri­ence if you’re a mu­sic lover. This is just pure mu­sic, played by one of the great rhythm sec­tions in mu­sic his­tory, sung by the great­est singer of our gen­er­a­tion.”


Aretha Franklin in the gospel film “Amaz­ing Grace.”

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